Paul Griffin was kind enough to recap for me the Diversity in YA lit panel discussion at SLJ’s Day of Dialog. I am posting his letter in its entirety so readers can see how an act of kindness can make all the difference for someone – like me – who is facing a few temporary ’bumps’ in the road of life. Thank you, Paul, for helping to smooth out the road for me.
A few thoughts about Day of Dialog, Diversity in YA lit, May 23, 2011. First, huge thanks to you and Luann for having me on the panel. What a wonderful morning. To spend time with Liz, Malinda, Rita and Cindy was an honor I won’t forget. Your W.A.R. outreach inspires me. In the future, if you need help, please call on me. Re Tuesday: Again, everything is going to be okay, and you’re going to be great. I’m putting out the good vibes for you.
Re the panel: Liz did beautiful work, both the morning of the panel and leading into it, setting the atmosphere the week before. She devoted time to getting an email conversation going, provoking us to think about the state of YA lit. From those exchanges, Liz focused us primarily on four topics: defining diversity, authenticity as it pertains to diversity, the influence of blogging/social media in YA lit, where we were in terms of diversity in our lit/where we are/where we want to be. Based on conversations after the panel, I think the two topics that grabbed folks most were authenticity and where we were/are/want to be.
We all felt that the books being offered to YA readers today are more diverse in terms of authorship and characters than those being pushed at young adults even ten years ago, whether in stores or via school curricula. (I’d been hit with Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, the usual suspects. Now of course I love those books, but at 14 I was wondering when the old man was going to catch the damned fish, and I could go play stickball. My father, a public school teacher for 33 years, managed to pitch Invisible Man to me as a story that featured “a cool loner without a name,” which sounded to me like a Clint Eastwood movie, so I read it. Native Son was “a murder mystery. The guy hides the body in a furnace.” How could I not jump on that one? Did I take that feminist lit class in college to read Zora Neale Hurston or because I knew I’d be the only guy in a room filled with a bunch of women who were, ahem, of a liberal mindset. My friends were like, “What’s up with the fem lit?” “Scheduling mistake,” I said. “Too late now. Have fun in Rocks for Jocks.” Whatever my motivations, some good stuff was managing to find its way into the old brain.)
While things are getting better, we definitely felt we had a lot of room to grow when it comes to offering young adults a selection of books more reflective of their lives. I think our conversation on this topic led us to this: Publishing executives could be making much higher salaries holding similar positions in other fields, e.g., finance or technology; that they’re in publishing because they believe reading creates a more peaceful and prosperous world, but they also must be responsible to their shareholders. They have to sell books, and if we can create new markets or expand extant ones, publishers will offer a supply that caters to the new/increase in demand. Liz pointed out that sites like goodreads and Reading In Color are showing us that there’s a demand for diversity in YA books.
Malinda brought up the great point that shifting population demographics will greatly increase the demand for more diverse stories—ones written by and/or featuring people of color. I shared my hope that continued literacy efforts will increase demand for more diverse stories, beginning with a scene from Rita’s gorgeous book Jumped. One of her characters, Leticia, whose principal concern is that she broke a nail after shelling out a lot of money for new tips, is lamenting the fact that her friend gets to read Push while Leticia’s English teacher is telling her that if she’s to gain any understanding of life, she must read A Separate Peace. Leticia thinks, Sure, because any minute now I’m about to transfer to an elite military academy, climb a tree with my friend to recite poetry, knock him out of the tree and wonder for the rest of the book whether or not I should tell anybody about it. I shared that Rita’s fiction mirrored my experience working with some kids last month up in my neighborhood, Washington Heights. Behind The Book, one of my favorite literacy organizations, sponsored the workshops. I befriended the English teacher—a great guy—charged with trying to get the kids to read The Odyssey. “How am I ever going to get these kids into the book?” the poor guy said. “You’re not,” I said. We concluded that The Odyssey is a hard read, both conceptually and in terms of language, no matter the reader’s age. I’d gotten to know the kids a bit over the two weeks, taking them on field trips through the neighborhood, and they were eager to tell me about themselves. Many come from single parent/provider homes. Their high school is two trailers welded together. While the teachers and administrators do amazing work, they don’t have the resources to provide the kind of infrastructure a teacher needs to encourage a thoughtful read of a book as complicated as The Odyssey. The kids said they would put more time into reading if they could see themselves reflected in what they were reading—and they did. Over the course of the workshops, each kid wrote a story with herself as a modern day hero. When the kids read their stories, their classmates were riveted. I think that’s where we want to be, in terms of the type of stories we’re offering our kids.
As the act of reading becomes easier and more cool with ever cheaper and therefore soon-to-be omnipresent technology, millions more kids will take a chance on a story, if they can see themselves either being or knowing one of its characters. We just have to keep our feet on the gas when it comes to helping them build their reading and writing skills. Literacy for Incarcerated Teens is another wonderful organization, as are the ALA’s Great Stories Program and the Creative Arts Team (not a literacy organization per se, but one that helps kids at-risk of falling through the cracks build life skills; I did a year-long tour with CAT a while back, and I can’t say enough good things about them—they are fabulous, please check them out: creativeartsteam.org)
When the conversation turned to authenticity, Rita spoke passionately and with good humor about the importance of trying to reach outside of oneself, of empathy, as we write our characters. Cindy and Malinda backed Rita up but added that people need to know one another—well—before they write about them. When we talk about authenticity, we often hear the word research. I think I speak for Rita, Cindy, Malinda, Liz and likely every other writer attending the panel Monday morning when I say that as we write our characters, we bring them into our stories the way we would let people into our homes: with extreme care, i.e., no strangers get through that door.
In conversations with writers and as a writing teacher at the New School some years ago, I’ve found that a writer is happiest when she relies on her strengths in finding her way to authenticity. After the panel, I interviewed Cindy for about half an hour. (I’ll post the edited video in the next few months, when I finally figure out how to get a website up and running.) Her next novel features monks. She’s doing a lot of reading to get an understanding about the way various monks live/see life. Cindy strikes me as very spiritual anyway, and I’m guessing that as she builds her characters she’ll draw heavily on her worldview, which to me seems rooted in being other-centric. Cindy is a mother of two. Her kids-first, mom-last lifestyle calls to mind a woman I met the day before the panel while working as an EMT. My ambulance was called to a car accident involving a 3-yr old boy, his father and his mother, who was seven months pregnant. Mom’s priorities, in order: her son, baby-to-be, husband. She wasn’t worried about herself. Dad’s: wanting to kick the shit out of the person who hit him, then his family’s health. I find this is pretty common (and probably how we’re hardwired: you have to be sure the attacker is neutralized before you can start caring for the wounded). Would I dare write any of these folks into a story? No. I got to know their medical histories, but I didn’t come close to getting to know them. However, I can see that situation coming into a story, to define a character as other-centric—or not.
Malinda has a remarkably rich background in academic research, and you see it reflected in her writing, the care she takes to set a scene, the history she brings to her characters’ backstories. In writing Ash, she likely took the time to study not only the Cinderella fable but also essays/literary criticism about it. Malinda spoke a bit about being one of the few kids of Asian descent in her grade school, of feeling like an outsider. Do I sense she drew on that as she created Ash’s character? Of course. However Malinda got me there, Ash’s thinking rings true to me: The choices the character makes as she deals with sadness, temptation, love are choices I can see myself making.
I know Rita a very little bit, by her writing and by way of a few email exchanges over the last few months, a couple of panels, and she lives not far from where my father’s side of the family comes from. Do I suspect she drew on her girlhood/teenage experiences, growing up on the Brooklyn/Queens border as she wrote Jumped and One Crazy Summer? Certainly. Yet for Jumped Rita did a lot of present-day, on the ground legwork too. I mentioned to our attendees that in her acknowledgements Rita thanked several schools for letting her wander their halls, and that I had worked at several of them over the years. One in particular, Franklin K Lane, stood out, because my grandmother’s house was literally around the corner, and I’d spent a fair amount of time hanging out in that schoolyard as a kid. That school defined the book’s location for me, and this was a big part of why Jumped was incredibly authentic to me. But even if a reader doesn’t know FK Lane and the situational specificity Rita invested in her writing, he’ll be drawn in by Rita’s emotional specificity, the way the girls in Jumped react to challenges they confront over the time period—one school day—the book takes place.
In my case, having had a whole bunch of jobs (butler, bartender, teacher, tutor, dockworker, dog trainer—I could go on, but then I’d put you to sleep, if you’re not snoring already—EMT, exorcist [just seeing if you’re still awake]) and having lived in a bunch of different places, my inspirations are a bit of a mish-mash. I am certain of this, though: Themes don’t provoke the stories. (I never know what the stories are about until we’re finished editing, and my editor Kate Harrison deconstructs them for me.) People from my life—the people closest to me—are the start point. I hope for them and wonder about their dreams, what would happen if I put this person in contact with that person? What would they do together? What would they become? Sometimes these people literally come together, combining to form one character. For example, maybe twenty years ago I was doing a conflict resolution workshop out on Staten Island. On the ferry ride back to Manhattan, I met a woman from Liberia. She was laughing and crying. She’d thought the ferry would take her to the Statue of Liberty. Being 23 and single with the rest of the afternoon off, I had no choice: What could I do but hit on her? This was the beginning of a rather intense relationship. Rosemary’s family had a lot of money and was in a bad spot as Charles Taylor seized power. Yet Rosemary was very much an in-the-moment type of person, finding beauty in seemingly everyday things. My mother-in-law is just this kind of person. She was orphaned at ten, a World War II refugee. Being Japanese in China at the end of the war was not good. On top of that, she had to take care of her little sister. Whereas Rosemary was rich, Noriko had nothing and had to be incredibly creative if she hoped to survive. Ultimately, she made her way to the USA and started up a successful restaurant, reaching out to more than a few immigrants looking for a better life, getting them work papers, citizenship, giving them jobs and, after they had established themselves, investing in their dreams, all as a single mother. Amazing person. Ten years ago she had a stroke that left her hemiplegic. She became clinically depressed and concluded her life had been a waste. To help her see all the good she’d done, I, one of her caretakers, began to write her life story. Two years of interviews later, I read the book to her over a period of two nights, and then we put it away in her hotokesan (the shrine she keeps in her closet)—but I couldn’t put away Noriko’s story. I’d always wondered what would have happened if Noriko and Rosemary met. They would have done something remarkable together. In my mind, their stories began to intertwine, and the two women became one character. Is the result authentic? I’m not sure. Which brings me to this next bit of discussion we had Monday morning:
Cindy, Rita, Malinda and I agreed that what a writer means is meaningless. It’s what the reader reads that is the definitive version of a story. However many times a story is read, there are that many versions of the story, and all takes on it are legitimate. In one instance, someone I greatly respect, as she does beautiful work reading, reviewing and getting the word out about a lot of books that need championing, saw one of my characters as African American when I had written him white. Other readers saw him as white, so who’s right? The reader, every time. So for one he’s white and for another he’s African American. I’m often not absolute about my characters’ origins. It’s a conscious choice, and I do it in the hope that readers of different backgrounds might be able to paint a bit of themselves into the blank spaces, e.g., I have a story coming out this fall in which one of the leads is definitely Italian American on her mother’s side (like me), but her father, who has been out of the picture since before she was born, could be from anywhere. I guess what I’m going for in my writing is where I am in my life, my friendships, family relationships, marriage, work relationships: I don’t care where you’re from, as long as you’re coming from a good place. What I am sure of is this: After working in a vacuum for twenty years, trying and failing miserably to publish one terrible novel after another, I’m always awed when somebody takes time from her busy life to read a story I wrote and offer a passionate response. So however a review shakes out, I’m grateful for any feedback that comes my way. I don’t negate, deny, defend or try to explain. I simply let the critique live in my heart, side-by-side with any and all other feedback. Where I see room to be better (and I always do), to grow as a writer, I put my energy there. The aim is to be if not more specific about my characters’ physical characteristics, then more authentic about their emotional qualities.
In the end, I go back to Malinda’s article in May’s SLJ: “I want my books to be read because they are thrilling, or thought-provoking, or simply because they’re fun.” Ash and Huntress—and Cindy’s Silver Phoenix and Fury of The Phoenix—feature characters of color and, in Ash, lesbian characters, and this thrills me as these characters are reflective of people in my life, but I’m loving Cindy’s and Malinda’s stories first and foremost because I like fantasy novels, and Malinda and Cindy are great at taking me away to dream worlds. I’m hoping the people who read Rita’s next book, which is about gaming, aren’t reading it to see if Rita can “write white.” (Of course she can.) I’m hoping they read it for the same reason I’m going to read it: Rita always tells one hell of a great story—character-driven and dramatic.
Well, Amy, I see I’ve trailed into a ramble here—so sorry. Evidence that the Day of Dialog got me thinking about a lot of things as they pertain to writing. Hopefully you can grab a few lines from here for your blog, to give you and your readers merely one of five panelists’ takes on the morning discussion. The rest is from me to you. You’re a great person, and your work inspires me. Sending out positive energy to you and your family for Tuesday.
E-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Find me on Twitter: @abowllan
Follow me on Facebook!